Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013, chose to give his book on that period in Washington the catchy title “Ally”. But this new memoir — an unprecedented case of a former public servant so quickly writing up sometimes intimate revelations on acutely sensitive core issues — does not describe an alliance at all.
The US-born former diplomat, who is now a Knesset member for the Kulanu party, notes in his foreword that the Hebrew term for “ally” is ben brit — literally “the son of the covenant.” And what he documents is actually the breaching of a covenant, the collapse of an alliance — an accumulated arc of abandonment by the Obama administration, and most especially the president himself, of Israel.
Oren’s style is not excitable or melodramatic. In fact, he writes in generally understated tone, with the measured sense of perspective you’d expect from a best-selling historian. So when he notes, as he does near the very end of the book, that last summer’s Israel-Hamas war left “aspects of the US-Israeli alliance in tatters,” you take him seriously, and you worry.
And when you read that Washington worked relentlessly to quash any military option for Israel, most especially in 2012 — arguably the last moment at which Israel could have intervened effectively to thwart Iran’s drive to the bomb (though Oren does not confirm this) — you sense that he has exposed the emptiness of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s endless assertions that Israel will stand alone if necessary to stop a nuclear Iran. And you register, with all its grim repercussions, the realpolitik of a broken relationship with our key defender — the rupture that now leaves Israel vulnerable to an increasingly bold Islamist regime that avowedly seeks our annihilation.
For an hour in his Knesset office on Monday, Oren discussed his book with The Times of Israel, elaborating in several key areas, and often rendering his depiction of relations with the Obama administration, and the implications for Israel in its battle for survival, still more disconcerting. So much so that I found myself asking Oren, “Are people going to look back in a few years’ time and say, This is what they were talking about in Israel as Iran closed in on the bomb and they were wiped out?”
His bleak reply? “It’s happened before in history, hasn’t it?”
Oren then laughed rather bitterly, and remarked, “The whole conversation is very down here.”
The Times of Israel: You call the book “Ally,” but its central theme is the incredibly problematic Obama presidency, to put it mildly, on Israel.
The central theme of the book is about someone who grows up in America, loves America, but has an abiding passion for Israel and the Jewish people, and dreams of someday being the bridge between these two countries that he loves, gets to actually do it, but does it during a period of almost unprecedented challenge in those relationships.
Obama is one challenge. The press is another challenge. The American Jewish community is another challenge. What isn’t a challenge? There are objective challenges. There is America that is starting 2009 in the depths of the worst financial crisis since the Depression. There is America that is bogged down in political polarization such as they’ve never experienced. Nothing can get done. There is America that is traumatized by two wars in the Middle East, exhausted. It doesn’t like to hear about the Middle East. It’s sick of us, wants to go home. That kind of challenge. To say nothing of what was going on here. Then the entire Middle East unravels. Egypt has not one, but two violent revolutions. Syria and Iraq cease to exist. The peace process is dead in the water. Abbas won’t talk to us for most of the period. All that’s going on, plus other issues: Women of the Wall, people spitting at women. All these things are happening in a very short period of time.
You took notes every night?
I’m not a diarist, but when I got into this job my wife Sally got me a really nice diary. She said, You might want to jot down a few things. And I came back from my first meeting with Obama in May 2009, and I thought, “Wow, that was interesting. Let me start jotting down a few things.” Then it became an actual diary. I never wrote anything secret in it, but I wrote discussions and observations. Some of them are very funny. When (the then White House chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel calls me at 2 o’clock in the morning and says, “I don’t like this fucking shit,” and I have nothing else to say to him other than “I don’t like this fucking shit either” and it goes on like that, I would then turn around and write this. I thought it was so funny. So interesting. But it’s also very revealing.
There’s a tendency to put this book in black and white terms and it wasn’t like that. I had excellent relationships with a lot of people in the administration. Many people in the administration were dear friends of the State of Israel. Someone like Tom Nides, the deputy secretary of state, Jewish guy, very funny guy and I quote him in the book: After UNESCO recognizes a Palestinian state (in 2011), he calls me and he says, the way they do in Washington, you know, “You don’t want to fucking defund UNESCO. They fucking teach the fucking Holocaust.” Because that’s the way they talk in Washington. That’s been quoted as an example of an anti-Israel bent for Tom Nides. It’s not like that. That’s the way they talk. We had an issue about UNESCO. We had a serious issue about UNESCO. I’d come back and say, that was a funny conversation. Let me write that down.
Is there a precedent for a book by an ambassador coming out this close to the end of his term?
No. I also urged Random House to bring it out in June. They wanted to bring it out much later. Listen, we’re at a crucial juncture. We’re at a crucial juncture now with the Iran issue, and it’s very important to set certain records straight as we go into what could be a fateful period for the State of Israel.
Was material taken out when it was reviewed here by the various official bodies?
It went through numerous reviews. In addition to all these different reviews, you need approval of the “inter-ministerial committee,” which is actually an office in the Prime Minister’s Office. The problem is that when the government collapsed, there were no ministers, so there’s no ministers on the inter-ministerial committee and I had a June deadline that I wanted to make and it was very difficult. In the end that committee was terrific. Everybody I worked with — the military censor, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Mossad — were terrific. There were things that they took out, but everything they took out had a reason — which I didn’t necessarily understand until I actually sat down with them. And then there were things that I was able to persuade them to keep in.
You say early on that these allies are in danger of drifting apart and you believe you can help prevent that. But the arc of the book is this accumulation of dismay and anguish over the administration and the president and their treatment of Israel. You call the book “Ally,” but you’re documenting the failure of an alliance, hopefully not forever. That’s what it is. That’s how it reads. After only a year in the job, you’re gasping at the absurdity of Rahm Emanuel telling Charlie Rose that Obama and Netanyahu are “friends” who have a very good honest constructive relationship. That’s only a year in, and you already know that that’s absurd.
I was taken aback (Laughs).
Yes, that’s my point. After a mere year, you’re already gasping at how at odds that assertion is with your knowledge of how things really are. And it just gets worse from there. Only a year in, you are already amazed that anyone could be asserting that. Right?
Umm hmm. (Laughs). Is that a question?
It’s a really worrying book. You’re documenting — you’re describing it; you’re the ambassador — a presidency that is so wrong and so increasingly problematic on Israel. You talk about an America that wants to pull out of the Middle East. I think the worst criticism is the line about the administration negotiating with Iran in secret on an issue of existential importance to Israel… (Oren writes in the book: “Most disturbing for me personally was the realization that our closest ally had entreated with our deadliest enemy on an existential issue without so much as informing us.”)
For seven months behind our back.
Again, the book is called “Ally,” but it’s not the documentation of an alliance. It’s the documentation of the failure of an alliance.
It’s a cri de coeur, that’s what it is, for an alliance that should be in a much better place than it is.
I’m gonna take this conversation somewhere. You don’t have to use any of this. We’ve been living here pretty much the same amount of time. I’m older than you. I’m getting up to 40 years here. I’ve done a lot of different things in Israel… I thought I knew this country before I got in here. I got in here and found I don’t know squat.
This (Knesset) building?
(Laughs). This building is Israel. I’ll tell you about three discussions I went to, on one day, last Thursday.
Anybody who would want to in any way endanger this little pearl of democracy, with all of its craziness, is being reckless and unappreciative of what we have here
I went to a discussion in the constitutional committee about whether the State of Israel should give grants, advantages, to industries within the Gaza envelope area. That’s defined as seven kilometers from the border. Seems like an open and shut case. Of course you give them advantages. These guys have been under shell fire. All these different NGOs show up and they say, “Wait a minute. If you give advantages to the Gaza envelope, my factory in Eilat is going to close and my factory in Afula is going to close.” Should a person who owns a factory in Sderot but lives in Tel Aviv get those advantages? What happens if you own a factory that’s 7 kilometers and 2 meters from Gaza? It was a fascinating debate, where these NGOs were interacting with the elected officials.
Then I went to the lobby for Arab Book Week. There is no Arab Book Week. I feel strongly about it. I was in there with a Knesset member from Meretz and other Arab Knesset members. They’re on a panel. There are Arabs there, with women with head coverings. Some writers. And the entire conversation is in Hebrew (laughs). This is Israel.
Then I go to a huge caucus meeting, attended by people from Meretz, Likud, Yesh Atid, my party, on educating young Israeli people about transgenderism. There were maybe 100 transgender young kids there.
Now all of this is happening about a two hour drive from ISIS. Think about it. There were two extraordinary things: One, this is happening a two-hour drive from ISIS. And two, I’m probably the only person in the room who thinks this is extraordinary. I’m sure I’m the only one who is thinking, “holy shit, this is happening here!”
Why do I bring this up in this conversation? Anybody who would want to in any way endanger this little pearl of democracy, with all of its craziness, to me is being reckless and unappreciative of what we have here. There’s a tremendous lack of appreciation for what we’ve accomplished here. That doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes. We make huge mistakes. But as irreplaceable as the United States is for Israel as the ultimate ally, we are an ultimate ally for the United States. You’re not going to find anything (else) like this here. There’s a lot of talk in this book about being on the right side of history. History’s going the other way. There is no Iraq. There is no Syria anymore. And this alliance is crucial for Middle East stability, and through Middle East stability is crucial to the world. I deeply believe that.
Don’t get me wrong. You can have disagreements. The Obama administration was problematic because of its world view: Unprecedented support for the Palestinians. Reconciling with what Obama calls the Muslim world; even the choice of the term is interesting. And outreach, reconciling with Iran. From the get-go. You see that right from the beginning. He comes into office going after Iran.
But (the administration) is also problematic because the White House jettisoned the two core principles of the alliance, which were “no surprises” and “no daylight.” Obama said it: I’m putting daylight. And proceeds to put daylight, public daylight. And then surprises. I was told that with previous administrations — I’m certainly going back to Clinton — we were always given advance copies of major policy speeches. The Cairo speech (that Obama delivered in 2009) was twice as long as the First Inaugural Address. It touched on issues that were vital to our security. We never had any preview.
How endangered are we? My impression, from the book, is that the summer or fall of 2012 was Israel’s last opportunity to intervene militarily against Iran.
I don’t know that for a fact. I really don’t. I didn’t know it for a fact then.
How endangered are we on Iran because of the Obama administration? You say nobody should want to endanger this pearl. But that’s what’s happened, isn’t it?
It has happened.
The good news is that America is not just the administration, as you know. America is America. America is the Congress. My biggest fear is not the Obama administration. I am deeply concerned about the future of the Democratic Party, with the progressive wing in the background. I think we have to do much more to reach out to that progressive wing. I would love to have had members of the progressive wing in the Democratic Party sit in that caucus the other day. I think they’d be blown away.
Which one, the transgender one or the Arab Book Week one?
Either one. Either one. Hello?!
(Senator) Lindsey Graham has been here many times and he’s an old friend, but he’d never been to the Knesset. I took him to the Knesset. He was here just over a week ago. I took him to a plenary session. I sat him down and what was the subject? You couldn’t make this up. Homophobia in the health care system. He watches an Arab Christian woman up there and give a speech, and he watches a Druze get up there and give a speech, about homophobia in the health system. There’s people yelling at each other. It was supposed to be a two-minute visit, but I couldn’t get him out of there. He was fascinated, couldn’t believe this was happening. This is why I talk about learning Israel in a different way. People don’t know it. This is our failure too. People don’t know us.
Let’s go back to the question of the United States and the danger (we face). We are in danger, but we’re not the only ones. A lot of people think they’re endangered by this. One of the ironies, as I mention in the book, is that Obama set out to bring Arabs and Israelis closer together through peace. He didn’t. He brought us closer together, but not through peace. He brought us together through our common anxiety over his policies. Our relationship with the Gulf countries is probably closer than at any time in our existence because of it. We’re living in a tremendously perilous time.
My conclusion from your book is that America prevented Israel from taking action to stop Iran thus far and isn’t going to take action itself.
(On Israel’s non-intervention) I can’t say that for sure. There might have been other factors.
You write about Washington “quashing” Israel’s military option.
I don’t know. I wasn’t privy to that decision-making process.
They’re not going to use force against Iran. That’s for sure.
Well, there was a debate whether Obama would ever use force. And I reach certain conclusions (in the book) about the conditions under which they might. But in the summer of 2012 you had major (Israeli) figures (urging no attack on Iran) — Meir Dagan; Gabi Ashkenazi; Shimon Peres saying, “If the president says he’s not bluffing, he’s not bluffing.” Now, in a recent interview with Ilana Dayan, Obama basically says there’s no military option. What are we to say about that?
The bottom line is that the day that Obama didn’t act against the Syrians (for their use of chemical weapons in 2013, and thus failed) to maintain the Syrian “red line,” was the day that the debate (over whether Obama was serious about his military option on Iran) stopped here. Did you notice that? Just stopped. Dead. And everyone went quiet. An eerie quiet. Everyone understood at that point that that was not an option, that we’re on our own.
To me that’s a refreshing Zionist moment. We realize we’re on our own. It’s a different topic, but I have a thing about this regional peace conference with the moderate Arab states that everyone keeps talking about here, certain parties. To me it’s running away from what I believe is an Israeli Zionist responsibility: taking our fate into our own hands. Waiting for the Saudis to somehow bring redemption? I don’t think it’s going to happen.
This administration is in power for another year and a half. How do you see it playing out on the Palestinian front?
It’s very important to note, and I say this in the book, that when Obama says security relations are closer than ever, it’s true. Security relations are closer than ever. It was also part of an approach that said we can have daylight on diplomatic issues, but not daylight on security issues. The problem is that in the Middle East, it doesn’t work. Nobody believes it. They don’t distinguish between types of daylight where we live. Impressions are paramount here.
The administration has a mantra: If you don’t make moves on peace, if you don’t freeze (settlements), you’re going to be isolated, you’re going to be boycotted, you’re going to be sanctioned. We all understood this was a threat
In the last Gaza war, as you note, Obama used the word “appalling” to describe the deaths of Palestinian civilians, a word he had last used to condemn Gaddafi massacring his own people. You highlight again and again the demands of Israel and the absent demands on the Palestinians, the misguided tactic that makes the Palestinians harden their position. And now we face efforts at the UN for statehood, and boycott efforts, and there’s still a year and a half of this administration to go. How do you see that playing out?
Right now, not well. I don’t want to focus just on the administration. I have to talk about what we’re doing too. It takes two to make a bad tango.
The administration has a mantra: If you don’t make moves on peace, if you don’t freeze (settlements), you’re going to be isolated, you’re going to be boycotted, you’re going to be sanctioned. We all understood this was a threat. When your parents say if you don’t clean up your room… it’s a threat. I always thought it was the wrong approach. I say in the book, Israelis make concessions when we feel secure. “If you do this, no matter what anybody tries to do to you, we’re going to defend you” — that should have been the approach. But it wasn’t. It was always trying to hit us over the head. Maybe someone thought that if you beat Bibi on the head frequently enough, he’ll give in. After all, they called him “chickenshit.” Until he showed up in Congress and all of a sudden he wasn’t chickenshit any more.
Congress is not going to cut aid to us, but there’s Europe, and that stick was flashed in front of our face an awful lot. We can’t stop these Europeans. Sometimes I meet with European officials here and I say, “Don’t you ever get sick of being America’s stick? Why don’t you do something creative, not just be America’s stick?”
I refer to the Palestinian issue as one of Obama’s kishke (gut) issues. It’s one of those core issues that he has.
This book, respecting you as a historian, reading you as a diarist, it seems terribly worrying. You say we’re either at May 1948 or May 1967. Do you consider that Israel is facing potential disaster? You say this book is a cri de coeur. How worried should we be about Israel’s place, especially given that we have this incredibly problematic relationship with a president who at the end there you quote saying that “America will be with you in a war because that’s what Americans want” rather than “because that’s what I want” or “because we’re allies with shared values”? So how bad is it?
There’s two stories, two sides to it. Everything has two sides to it. As I say in the book, best case we’re May ’67, worst case, we’re May ’48, because rarely in our history have Israeli decision makers faced such a broad spectrum of monumental threats all at the same time. ISIL is the least of them, in many ways. 100,000 rockets in Lebanon; NATO doesn’t have 100,000 rockets. I don’t know a state in modern times that’s faced anything like it. Last summer we were hit by twice as many rockets as were fired by Nazi Germany at Britain in all of World War II. I’m talking about V1s, V2s. 100,000 rockets. In the Cold War, countries built up rocket arsenals, missile arsenals, in order not to use them. That’s not the case with Hezbollah. It’s built it to use it.
We face the Iranian nuclear program. We face instability along our crucial Jordanian border. Our security border is not Jordan-Israel, it’s Jordan-Iraq. Insecurity in Sinai too. The Palestinian issue going nowhere. BDS. Delegitimization around the world. That’s also a strategic threat. It’s immense, it’s enormous.
Rarely in our history have Israeli decision makers faced such a broad spectrum of monumental threats all at the same time
And daylight, to put it mildly, with our key ally.
Yes. So I’ll give you a bad scenario. If Hezbollah opens fire at us, we can’t neutralize them from the air. We’d have to send our army in. They’ve put at least 25,000 rockets in houses underground. We’re going to have to go into all those houses. You’re talking about a military operation that’s going to take months, involve many, many thousands of casualties. The army has put out its estimates of how many hundreds, if not thousands of rockets will be hitting us every day. We’ll not only need Iron Dome. We’ll need Diplomatic Iron Dome. Who’s going to protect us? Last summer we had a case where the administration held up supplies of vital munitions. We’re going to expend munitions; it’s not going to be a couple of weeks. These are hard questions.
And therefore, we have to think strategically, always. We had a difference of opinion on how to deal with Obama, how to meet the challenge. I thought that if we could show more flexibility on the Palestinian issue, we could dig in our heels more on the Iranian issue. I thought if we didn’t sweat the small stuff so much, we could be tougher on the big stuff. There was a difference of opinion (between me and Netanyahu). It was like the Guiliani broken window thing: if you let the small stuff go, people will assume you won’t stand up for the big stuff. It was an honest argument. It was an argument that sometimes I won. But then I ran into a problem. The moratorium (on settlement expansion agreed by Netanyahu in 2009-10), Bar-Ilan (Netanyahu’s 2009 speech in favor of the two-state solution), all those things that Netanyahu did to try to go some way towards Obama (on the Palestinian issue), he received no credit for. On the contrary.
Indeed. Your argument is not overwhelmingly compelling.
It is not.
And Netanyahu’s is not unreasonable.
And I think I’m rather honest in the book about that.
I felt that I was there to try to make things better, but (the administration) didn’t make it easy for me. And then we do things that aren’t smart. The United States will stick with us at the UN and we’ll annex 960 dunams and build on it in the West Bank. What do you expect? Yes, the administration committed what I think is a cardinal error in disavowing the Bush-Sharon letter of 2004 (ruling out an Israeli return to the pre-1967 lines) which I think was a great diplomatic achievement. It gave space not only to us, it gave space to the Palestinians. When Abbas gives that great interview to Jackson Diehl in which he says Obama put me up a tree and then he went down the ladder and took the ladder away, that’s what he was referring to. But we didn’t help. They (the administration) erased the difference between building a balcony in Gilo and building a neighborhood in Itamar, but we didn’t stand by the difference either. We should have said no. This is a presidential commitment.
By the way, it’s a terrible precedent: a president coming in and not recognizing a presidential (commitment). A lot of our security understandings with the United States are based on presidential commitments. It’s a source of worry.
Everyone looks at this alliance as a type of litmus for the way America treats its friends in the world. Even the Palestinians (look at it in that way). I was shocked. We have these relations with Arabs in Washington that you can’t have outside of Washington. At one point there were two different groups of Palestinians who didn’t talk to one another, but I talked to both of them. When Obama came out publicly against us on the settlements, it had the exact opposite effect on the Palestinians than you’d think. It made them think, if this guy does this to his friends, we can’t trust him. Amazing. President Bush in 2007 — this is President Bush beat up by Iraq and Afghanistan — in November convened the Annapolis Peace Conference. Very quickly, within like two weeks, he got 47 almost heads of state, secretaries of state, including all the Arab states, to convene in Annapolis. Obama now has trouble getting a couple of Gulf Arab states to go to Camp David. That’s telling you something about the way people have looked at alliances here. That’s why I said that the alliance with Israel is vital to the United States too, and vital to the region. Everyone’s looking at us.
It seems that Obama is the most dangerous president there has been for Israel?
There’s dangerous in different ways. Kennedy had a notorious relationship with Ben-Gurion. You want to get scared, read the protocol of Ben-Gurion’s talk with Kennedy in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (in 1961), about Dimona. Eisenhower threatened to sanction us.
But we are now exposed to a potential nuclear threat by a regime that wants us to be annihilated.
Yes. I can’t put a finer point on it.
And that didn’t have to be. With a different president, that would not have been (the case).
Er, yes. This is ideological for him. Clearly ideological for him. It is hard-wired. Listen, one of the first things he does when he gets into the Oval Office, even before that, he’s talking about Iran. It didn’t have to be.
You know, I disagreed with the prime minister’s decision to give the speech in Congress, but I certainly agree with everything he said in Congress, which was the alternative (path to tackling Iran). The administration gave a binary view: you’re either for this deal or you’re for war.
Yes, the president was so disingenuous. He actually said words to that effect.
But it’s false. Of course there’s a better way of doing it: a better deal. A better deal through harder sanctions and a credible military threat. Clearly. I suggest some ways in the book why they reached this conclusion. But for us none of the rationales are good. There are structural differences between the United States and us on Iran. A big country, far away, not threatened, big military capabilities, versus a small country, near, threatened, you know. But there’s also deep ideological differences, worldview. It all boils down to two lines. Obama says Iran is not North Korea, and Bibi says Iran’s worse than 50 North Koreas. It all comes down to that.
Our margin for error with Iran is exactly zero. The Iranians are smart. Ehud Barak used to always say, they don’t play checkers, they play chess and they don’t play chess, they play triple tier chess. So, they’re moving 100,000 rockets to Hezbollah. They’re moving into Yemen. They’re coming across Iraq.
They’re out to destroy us?
They’re out to do many things.
Yes, but what I care about the most is, Are they out to destroy us?
We are one of the things they want to achieve. I think it’s dear to their hearts. They make no secret of that.
Our demise is something they would like to achieve?
Yes, it’s part of their raison d’etre. And it may have deep, not just ideological, but maybe theological roots, but they’re moving at us in various ways. One of the fears I express in the book is that the Iranians are very smart. They observe. They observed what happened to Gaddafi and what didn’t happen to North Korea. One guy gave up his nuclear program and the other guy chose (nuclear) experiments. They saw what happened.
The big question with the operation on Iran was not the actual operation, which by all accounts would have been certainly complex, but we always used to worry about (the fallout)
They also saw what happened to Assad. That was one of the most illuminating episodes in modern Middle East history. It happened over the course of a couple of days. We discussed its impact on the debate here. The Iranians also watched it and what did they conclude? They saw how Assad went from being part of the problem to being the solution. The minute he gave up whatever percentage of his chemical weapons program, he could barrel-bomb his own people with impunity. That locution “Assad must go” disappeared from the American vocabulary. Just disappeared. You think the Iranians didn’t notice that? And they drew a lot of conclusions.
Let’s talk about Netanyahu for a second. I interviewed (former foreign minister) Liberman last week.
Yeah, I read that.
He said, in about six languages, that Netanyahu’s all talk. Is Netanyahu all talk on Iran? You write about his emphasis on rhetoric.
That’s what he has in common with Obama.
But is he going to do anything on Iran?
I don’t know.
The man who feels that he is fated to be prime minister to protect us from genocide, and who may have allowed himself not to act in the summer of 2012 because the Americans were pressing him, has the moment passed? I get the sense that the moment passed and then I have people telling me that he just doesn’t have the guts. That he couldn’t even face down Hamas.
I don’t know. I know this: What you said, that Netanyahu is a man who views himself as a person in history, which is different from many leaders. Ehud Olmert didn’t see himself as a person in history. Not all leaders see themselves as transformative and as being born for a certain moment. Of that I have no doubt.
Really what I’m asking you is: Are people going to look back in a few years’ time and say that this is what they were talking about in Israel as Iran closed in on the bomb and they were wiped out? And they were moaning about this and moaning about that.
It’s happened before in history, hasn’t it? (Laughs grimly) The whole conversation is very down here.
You’re in caucus meetings about transgenders…
I mean really, it’s crazy.
And they’re closing in on the bomb.
There are people who are dealing with that. It doesn’t mean we can afford to overlook the suffering of people who have sexual challenges.
By all means, I understand, I agree. And yet, in a few years’ time, I don’t want somebody to be looking back and saying, Oh, and that’s when Israel was lost. That was the period when Israel was lost. Did you spend four years in Washington when we missed the opportunity to protect ourselves and we no longer had a protector there?
(Long pause) I can’t say. I don’t know. You’re asking me about being privy to certain conversations that I wasn’t privy to. The ambassador knows an awful lot…
No, I’m not asking you that. I’m asking you about your wise assessment.
In the book I talk about my deep ambivalence. On the one hand, I share that feeling that this is our historic mission. There may have been a moment (for fulfilling that mission) in 2012. I don’t know.
Our historic mission being?
Our historic mission is to ensure the survival of the Jewish state and the Jewish people. That’s our historic mission.
And there may have been a moment…?
And I was ambivalent (at that moment). My daughter was getting married that summer and my whole family was coming. And there was ambivalence because I knew what it would mean for our relationship with the United States. The big question with the operation on Iran was not the actual operation, which by all accounts would have been certainly complex, but we always used to worry about (the fallout): D1, D2, D3. D1, D2, D3 was Hezbollah. It was at that time we could still think about getting hit by Syrian rockets. Iranian rockets. Who was going to defend us? Who was going to defend our ability to defend ourselves? That was always the question. And we understood already from the Second Lebanon War that this defense could not be ensured from the air. Who was going to defend us from lawfare? Who was going to defend us from condemnations in the UN Human Rights Council, from sanctions? That was what I call the Diplomatic Iron Dome and I was not at all sure of it. I am not at all sure of it.
The Israeli public don’t know the depths of Netanyahu’s exhaustion
Last summer shows that my fears were founded. Toward the end of the book I mention the closing of Ben Gurion Airport. (Two-thirds of foreign airlines, including all US carriers, ceased flying to Israel for a day and a half after a rocket from Gaza struck a mile from the airport during last summer’s war.) Now my good friend and former colleague Dan Shapiro (the current US ambassador to Israel) explained to me that there’s a federal regulation that says that if a rocket falls less than a mile from… Ask any Israeli if they believe that.
Of one thing you can be certain: The next war, thousands of rockets at Ben Gurion Airport. It was the single greatest strategic achievement ever given to a terrorist organization. They closed this country off from the air. There was a decision made (by the US administration to bar US airlines from flying to Israel). What can I say? That’s going to tell you something about if there’s another round. Is Hezbollah watching this? Is Hezbollah thinking this? Hezbollah was watching last summer’s war very carefully. So, yes, I have my fears.
On the other hand, as Obama himself said in his last meeting with Bibi that I quote: “If war comes, we’re with you, because that’s what the American people want.”
The way you write it, it was as though Obama was speaking through gritted teeth: Unfortunately, because the American people want to stand with Israel…
Netanyahu does come out of your book quite well.
Does he? I didn’t set out to write a book…
Do you think you could do this job?
I used to say I wake up in the morning and say a little blessing that I don’t have to deal…He gets really about 4 hours sleep and he gets woken up constantly. The Israeli public don’t know the depths of his exhaustion. I’m just dealing with one small aspect of his job. His job is to deal with labor unions, and things you don’t want to know about, party politics.
Would you like to be prime minister?
Don’t ask me that question.
You’d say no if you wanted to say no.
I’m going to give you the diplomatic answer, which is that I will fulfill whatever role the people of Israel call me to fulfill. That’s the line. But I have an appreciation, certainly, of that part of the prime minister’s job. That, in itself, is a triple-time job: the care and feeding of the American-Israel relationship.
Reading your book I’m not convinced that even if Netanyahu had done all those things that you advised him to do — more empathetic in principle on the Arab Peace Initiative, not building in isolated settlements, etc. — it would have had any effect on this administration.
If there was a Labor government, I don’t think it would have been much different.
Unless it was a Labor government prepared to take far greater risks (on the Palestinians)?
Would a Labor government have had problems with the Iranian nuclear agreement?
Yes, I think so. But on the Palestinians…
Even the Palestinians. At the end of the day the Palestinians were not going to sign an agreement with us.
That’s such a great line in the book: Biden, during his 2010 visit, asks Abbas to look him in the eye and promise he can make peace with Israel, and Abbas refuses.
Biden told me that story. Both Biden and Dennis Ross told me that story.
And Biden goes back to Obama and tells him that story, or he doesn’t?
Biden was a great friend, he really was. In many ways.
I’m asking you: Does Biden then go home and say to Obama, I did ask Abbas to promise me he can make peace, and he refused?
You’re dealing with a kishke issue.
One of the reasons I joined Kulanu was because it gave me an opportunity to be the architect of a diplomatic platform, which I published in the Wall Street Journal three months ago, called The Two-State Situation. I think that our position should be, as a matter of diplomacy, we support the two-state solution. As a practical matter, think it out. We’re not just talking about moving 80 to 100,000 Israelis. We’re talking about creating a state that has no institutions, no economy, a corrupt, unelected leadership, which is incapable of defending itself, even last summer when Abbas was going to be overthrown. So how long is this state going to last? Really. No one is being realistic.
We should always say, “We’re at the table ready to negotiate,” even if Abbas is not here. We should limit where we build. We should go back to the Bush-Sharon formula. That would go a long way to lessening the chances for boycotts. It would help our friends in the Democratic Party tremendously.
The president is very serious about the two-state solution and now maybe perhaps is not guaranteeing that he’ll veto a French resolution (at the UN Security Council on Palestinian statehood). I can’t guarantee you that they’re going to veto the French resolution. But I do know that if we adopted that kind of policy, we could go a long way to ensuring that the United States would oppose.
Assuming that Israel gets to the next presidency intact and given your dealings with Hillary Clinton, how effective might she be as president in healing this fracture? Is it fractured, broken, collapsed, in tatters?
Part of it was in tatters. Certainly. When you have people in the White House calling your prime minister what they call him, and the prime minister going and giving a speech without informing the president, that’s not a very healthy situation.
I had a lot of hours working with Hillary. She’s an incredibly formidable intellect, physically robust. She’s of that generation that still has that warm place in her heart (for Israel). Her formational experience with Israel was the Six Day War and not, say, the First Intifada. But we’d still have to move toward her. We’d have to meet her halfway. If she were president — and this is all highly hypothetical — and we retained the status quo (on the Palestinians), we would still be in a very difficult situation.
But there would be a level of empathy that there isn’t…?
But empathy only gets you so far. Even Bush put a lot of pressure on us at various times. Think about the presidents who had empathy for us who put a lot of pressure on us.
We couldn’t just sit back on our laurels and not do anything. But she comes from a place of empathy.
In the book I wrote about our abortive attempt to take our first vacation, in our fourth year (in late 2012), in Mexico. I landed. There was Sandy Hook. A guy goes missing in Syria. We can’t have a vacation. Hillary has some kind of physical breakdown. She gets sick. This is not in the book. I call the prime minister from the cab. I called him. I told him what happened. He got very upset. Fifteen minutes later he calls me back again. “Is she okay?” Fifteen minutes later, he calls me back again. “What am I going to do? Is she okay?” I was amazed by this. Suddenly you realize that this guy actually cared for her. Why was he doing this? She was near the end of her period as secretary of state. He was genuinely concerned. They had a rapport. Did they agree on (all) things? They did not. But they had a rapport. They go back. She understands certain things about Israel. She writes about it in her book. She gets it. She also thought that the abandonment of Bush-Sharon was a bad idea. Just tactically, it’s a bad idea.
(An aide comes in to call Oren for a meeting of his Kulanu faction.) David, we didn’t talk about Jews at all. There’s also a long section in the book about relations with the press. I really wrote so much of the book for the American Jewish community, to get in that discussion about us. (Sighs). Everything’s Obama and Bibi.